Vanderbilt signs brief to support Harvard’s fight in affirmative action legal battle

Vanderbilt is one of nine private universities that joined the Ivy League in signing an amicus brief defending the use of race in the admissions process

Updated 7/31 at 11:55 p.m. 

Yesterday, Vanderbilt joined 15 universities–including the entire Ivy League–in signing an amicus curiae brief supporting Harvard in its recent legal battle involving the use of affirmative action in its admissions processes.

The case at hand, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. vs. President And Fellows Of Harvard College (Harvard Corporation), began when Austin Jia, a student at Duke University, believed that his rejections from Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania were due to his racial identity as an Asian American, claiming that universities give preferential treatment to other racial minorities, such as Black and Hispanic students.

Diversity encourages students to question their own assumptions, to test received truths, and to appreciate the complexity of the modern world.

The case, which is currently being argued in Massachusetts District Court and which the New York Times claims is “clearly aimed for the Supreme Court,” points out that near equal percentages of Black, Hispanic, white, and Asian-American students are admitted to Harvard each year, despite changes in application rates and the accomplishments of these students, creating what the plaintiff asserts is an illegal quota system. Students for Fair Admissions, the plaintiff in the case, is a conservative-leaning nonprofit and has filed similar suits against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin.

The amicus brief reaffirms the schools’ joint emphasis on diversity on their campuses.

“Amici speak with one voice to emphasize the profound importance of a diverse student body for their educational missions,” the mission-driven brief reads. “The diversity that Amici seek in their admissions policies is nuanced and multifaceted, and it encompasses a diversity of perspectives, experiences, goals, backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and interests. Amici strive to enroll a diverse student body because in their experience Amici have found that doing so significantly deepens the students’ educational experience. Diversity encourages students to question their own assumptions, to test received truths, and to appreciate the complexity of the modern world. This larger understanding prepares Amici’s graduates to pursue innovation in every field of discovery, to be active and engaged citizens equipped to wrestle with the great questions of the day, and to expand humanity’s learning and accomplishment.”

“The plaintiffs here suggest that holistic review should be conducted without regard to race, but it is artificial to consider an applicant’s experiences and perspectives while turning a blind eye to race,” the brief continues. “For many applicants their race has influenced, and will continue to influence, their experiences and perspectives.”

“Vanderbilt’s leadership decided to sign onto this amicus brief because we believe a diverse and inclusive campus community is critical to the Vanderbilt educational experience and mission,” Vanderbilt said in a statement to the Hustler. “We work to identify and recruit a wide and deep pool of applicants from around the country and the world. Consistent with well-established law, we take a holistic look at each individual applicant to assess what skills, perspectives, backgrounds and educational experiences they would bring to the Vanderbilt community.”

“As the brief states, we believe that any decision by the court to resolve this case by limiting or eliminating the use of legally appropriate considerations of race during the admissions process would intrude on Vanderbilt’s ability to fulfill its educational mission, for the reasons enumerated above,” the statement continued.

An amicus curiae brief–or amicus brief, for short–is Latin for “friend of the court,” and is filed by parties who are not part of the litigation, but who have a vested interest in the outcome of a case. The court uses amicus briefs to consider relevant views of those who are affected by the outcome of litigation. In the past, the Vanderbilt Office of General Counsel has worked with its counterparts at peer universities as well as the law firm Jenner & Block to write, edit and submit amicus briefs. Vanderbilt declined to comment on the specifics and logistics surrounding how the school got involved with the brief and what the process looked like. 

Jacob Pierce, a Vanderbilt senior who is the president of the Multicultural Leadership Council, points out that minority students work extremely hard to land at elite universities.

“There’s that adage that goes, ‘you have to work twice as hard to get half as much,’ and it’s something that I can say I’ve felt to be true in my own experiences,” Pierce said, noting that he cannot speak for every minority.

Vanderbilt has a rich recent history of signing amicus briefs alongside other colleges and universities. In 2015, Vanderbilt jointly filed an amicus brief with 12 peer universities as part of Fisher v. University of Texas, a landmark affirmative action case in which the Supreme Court ended up ruling that the University of Texas had not violated the constitution in denying a white student admission, despite her claims that she was rejected based on her race, supporting the continued consideration of race as one factor among many in admissions decisions. Vanderbilt and 13 peer institutions filed a similar amicus brief for the court’s first hearing of the case in 2012.

In their brief in 2015, the universities wrote, “a diverse student body adds significantly to the rigor and depth of students’ educational experience. Diversity encourages students to question their own assumptions, to test received truths, and to appreciate the complexity of the modern world. This larger understanding prepares … graduates to be active and engaged citizens wrestling with the pressing challenges of the day, to pursue innovation in every field of discovery, and to expand humanity’s learning and accomplishment.”

In February 2017, Vanderbilt joined 16 peer institutions in filing an amicus brief urging the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington to uphold the stay of President Donald Trump’s January executive order banning immigrants and refugees from six majority-Muslim nations from the U.S. In September 2017, Vanderbilt signed another amicus brief along with 30 other colleges and universities, encouraging the Supreme Court to strike down Trump’s January executive order. And in November 2017, Vanderbilt joined 18 peer institutions in signing an amicus brief supporting plaintiffs who are seeking an injunction against ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.

Pierce emphasizes that universities need to not only focus on bringing minority individuals to the student body, but to ensure that they have a positive and inclusive experience once they arrive on campus.

“It’s important to make sure these schools not only work to admit diverse students, but also work to ensure they feel safe and welcome once they arrive at these institutions,” he said.